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PalmSource to build Palm OS on Linux

Buys Chinese phone software firm to speed release

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Update PalmSource is to create a new version of the Palm OS with Linux at its core, the company said today after announcing a plan to buy Chinese phone software company China MobileSoft (CMS).

With the device market becoming increasingly phone-centric, and with the Chinese market offering a far greater opportunity to device vendors - and their suppliers, like PalmSource - than Europe and North America, it's not hard to see the OS developer's interest in the region.

PalmSource already has a smart phone OS, but it believes CMS code will allow it to extend its reach further downmarket into more basic voice-oriented models. CMS has built a phone platform, mfone, on the back of a home-brewed, ARM- and MIPs-oriented embedded version of Linux, mLinux, and a selection of the usual comms and PIM apps. All these components will be the Palm OS look and feel - and, crucially, data compatibility - over time. What's planned is no mere GUI swap - more the replacement with PalmSource code of CMS' application and that part of the OS sitting above the Linux kernel. Some CMS technology, particularly in the telephony area, may well find its way into the Palm OS.

PalmSource is also likely to take full advantage of Linux's strength in chipset and device support, the better to improve its OS' ability to offer wireless connectivity, such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which if PalmOne and SanDisk's attempts to ship WLAN add-ons are anything to go by, currently need some improvement. Some Linux APIs will be exposed to PalmOS programmers.

Palm's 68k emulation model will be ported to Linux, PalmSource said, to ensure full compatibility with older apps. Software written for Palm OS 6 - aka Cobalt - using the Protein API will probably just need to be recompiled, the company said.

Like Apple with Mac OS X, PalmSource will keep all the top-layer code proprietary, but it will release any changes it makes to the underlying Linux code - for faster boot times and battery life preservation systems, for example - available to the open source community.

Targeting low-end phones

PalmSource will clearly pitch the result as a more open alternative to Symbian and Microsoft's phone operating systems. But it may also improve PalmSource's ability to attract handset makers looking for a less complex operating system than those that typically power smart phones. Not only Symbian and Windows Mobile, but the Palm OS too is generally seen as unsuitable for low-end, low-resource devices. So far only a small percentage of the world's mobile phones fall into the 'smart' category.

While that may not matter to the Nokia's of this world, already equipped with suitable OS technology, it is likely to appeal to companies keen to break into the developing phone markets, and who are more willing to license the technology they need.

If they want a full-featured product, PalmSource has its currently shipping Palm OS 5-based Garnet OS, along with Cobalt. For customers who want something more open, there will be the CMS-derived Linux version, too, replicate Cobalt's feature-set, PalmSource insiders tell us.

CMS' focus on China should help PalmSource's moves in that geographic direction. For all CMS' interest in that market, it was co-founded and is run by Silicon Valley folk, so there should be a good cultural fit with PalmSource. CMS' China sales and R&D operation is run as a subsidiary, MobileSoft Technology (Nanjing), which PalmSource also plans to acquire - doubling its number of engineers at stroke. PalmSource CEO David Nagel was keen to point out that the results of the joint development work will not be restricted to Chinese ODMs - European and North American customers will be welcomed too.

However, it remains the case that many of the device makers most keen on adopting Linux are based in the Far East. Interestingly, it's been actual and potential customers who have pushed for Linux adoption, rather than PalmSource itself, Nagel told The Register.

CMS software is today shipping on 30 Chinese handset designs and has signed ten ODM licences, so its not exactly short of customers.

The deal depends on shareholder and regulatory approval, of course, but if it goes ahead, PalmSource will issue 1,570,000 shares which it will swap for CMS equity. The transaction is anticipated to close before the end of PalmSource's third fiscal quarter, ending 28 February 28 2005.

PalmSource will then be able to announce a 'Palm on Linux' release schedule at its developer conference next Spring. ®

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